Still more work to be done
By Drew Altman
When the levees broke and New Orleans was inundated five years ago, the country was understandably appalled by the government's initial response to Hurricane Katrina. Images of people stranded on rooftops and sound bites such as "Heckuva job, Brownie" became entrenched in the public mind as a symbol of the failure of our government here and abroad. If Katrina was the symbol of government ineptitude five years ago, today government at all levels, community organizations and city residents are making a difference.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has conducted three biennial surveys on the experiences and opinions of New Orleans residents since Katrina. Recovery and rebuilding efforts, while far from perfect, have resulted in real progress, with 67 percent of residents saying they have mostly recovered and 70 percent saying the recovery is moving in the right direction. In a historically poor city, 55 percent of residents now say their health-care needs are being met "very well," even though Charity Hospital, the famous public hospital that served the poor, has yet to be replaced. Optimism is up, fueled by the restoration of tourism and even the Super Bowl win in January.
Still, there is a very long way to go. Many displaced residents will not be coming back -- the population is about a quarter smaller than before Katrina -- and whole neighborhoods are far from restored. While jobs and the economy are the runaway issues in national polls, New Orleans residents say their greatest concern by far is crime, and 55 percent do not trust the police. African Americans have been affected much more profoundly; they are more than twice as likely as whites to say that their lives are still disrupted by Katrina. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dampened the positive energy that had been building, and worries remain about the ultimate damage from the spill. Strikingly, 70 percent of residents say the rest of the nation has forgotten about them. When President Obama visits New Orleans this weekend, he has an opportunity to recognize both the progress that has been made and the work still to be done. Residents will be looking for a simple message: The country still cares.
Drew Altman is the president and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation.